Introverts have challenges but they’re not oppressed. Prove me wrong (please).

This is a reworking of something I posted on reddit last night in response to someone’s question about why introverts are the subject of discrimination.

I’m not an expert in prejudice-against-introverts research (if that exists) but a few (admittedly quick) searches aren’t turning up anything about that (link here to a google scholar search). I think it’s at least 50% probable that there is some research like this, somewhere, but until I find it the evidence I can see around me does not seem to suggest that introverts are the targets of systematic prejudice or discrimination or negative stereotyping.

On the other hand, there’s certainly a lot of assuming that introverts are a marginalized class of individuals. I should probably put “introverts” in quotes because introversion is a dimensional personality trait, not a category. Even with dimensions, of course, categories can arise; people who all have similar values on some trait might “cluster” in terms of other things, like correlates of the trait, outcomes, life experiences, etc. So that’s still possible, but I don’t have that information so I continue to think in dimensional terms: everyone has some “amount” of introversion: some people have lots, and others have only a little. I’ve included measures of introversion/extroversion in some empirical studies (N=400-1,000) and it’s a quite normally-distributed variable. Other researchers find the same. The vast majority of people have “medium” levels of introversion.

Despite the (apparent to me, right now) lack of evidence, lots of writers of scholarly and quasi-scholarly literature insist that “introverts” (OK, I made my point about dimensions; I’ll stop using the quotes, but it hurts me to do so) are marginalized, in some cases implying that they experience discrimination similar to racism or misogyny. The evidence presented by these introvexperts, (dorky label, just go with it), tends to rely heavily on lists of cultural messages (e.g., common sayings, famous quotes, familiar experiences) critical of traits associated with high-introvert personalities and demonstrations that many benefits in our society are more difficult to achieve for people with very high levels of introversion.

I don’t think any of the above adds up (yet?) to the conclusion that introverts are an oppressed social group, for at least four reasons. Details for each after the “more” link:

  1. There might not be any empirical research documenting such discrimination or oppression
  2. Alongside the lists of introvert-negative/extrovert-positive social messages it’s fairly easy to make large lists of the opposite—introvert-positive/extrovert-negative social messages
  3. Difficulties for people with a particular characteristic do not necessarily imply discrimination or oppression
  4. The overall tone of the “in defense of introverts” messaging is not totally consistent with the message that introverts are systematically disadvantaged or that equality is the motivation of the messages.

1.Where’s the evidence?

I don’t know of any research demonstrating an overall bias against introverts. Not much more to say about this; if I learn of relevant research, I will update this little screed (possibly radically, depending on the findings).

2. We also hate extroverts and love introverts

The somewhat defensive defenses of “introverts” I have seen have all made the apparently solid observation that North Americans/Western Europeans have many cultural messages (e.g., prototypes/stereotypes, myths, figures of speech, sayings, famous quotes) that are “introvert-negative” either on their face or because they are “extrovert-positive.” In other words, these messages imply that behaviors associated with high levels of introversion are inferior to other behaviors. While these points seem accurate and probably resonate with any audience, they ignore the fact that our meta-society also has many positive things to say about introvert traits, with negative things to say about extroverts. It’s not difficult to think of counter-examples:

  • “Speak softly and carry a big stick”
  • “Still waters run deep”
  • “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”
  • “He’s just flapping his gums,” “She’s running her mouth”
  • “They only babble who practice not reflection”
  • “Quiet people have the loudest minds”

There are many more, of course, and they imply the opposite of the persecuted-introvert hypothesis. Look at any list of “quotes about introverts” and see how many are critical of introvert-typical behavior; I found only a very small proportion when I did a very unscientific search recently.

In the same vein, there are any number of literary or Hollywood heroes/heroines who are introverts: think of many Jane Austen protagonists, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Elliot Alderson in Mr. Robot, both John Reese and Harold Finch in Person of Interest, or characters played by John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, or Audrey Toutou. Further, think of how the more extroverted characters around them are portrayed in contrast. The popularity of these tropes is not surprising when you realize how well introversion fits with some traditional Western gender roles: “quiet/demure” for women and “strong/silent” for men (either as an action hero or as the hardworking breadwinner). Also consider that our culture (over)values intelligence, and our cultural stereotypes for “smart” are more frequently bundled with introversion-typical characteristics like “quiet,” “withdrawn,” “bookish,” etc. than with extroversion-typical traits. Introverted characters abound among our most popular stories, and they are often shown suffering the extrovert fools around them (see #4, below).

3. Difficulty does not mean oppression

The introvexperts also point out that many important benefits in our meta-society are more easily obtained by people with high levels of extroversion than by their high-introversion counterparts in the other tail of the bell curve. These include anything requiring public speaking, socializing/networking, assertiveness, etc. That’s a huge chunk of the world of careers, with real consequences for financial and social success. However, the fact that some things are more difficult for people with certain characteristics does not necessarily imply prejudice against those people as a group, much less active discrimination. Physically strong people, for instance, pass firefighter exams more easily and have an easier time in sports and construction, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us are a bunch of anti-weak-people bigots. People with high levels of psychopathy (and correspondingly low levels of empathy) probably have an advantage in making loads of money as CEOs or corporate lawyers, but this doesn’t mean our society is hobbled by anti-nice-person prejudice.

It’s also important, again, to consider the flip side. The difficulties referred to above exist alongside career and social paths that are actually easier for high-introversion people: success in academia (believe me, a need for a social life can be a handicap), some tech fields (some companies have been rumored for years to recruit software coders from online forums for people with autism), writing, some pathways in art, etc. These don’t negate the difficulties, but they exist side-by-side with them, complicating the picture.

4. Maybe it’s not really about equality

Despite the use of civil-rights and women’s-rights styles of rhetoric, the “takedowns” of extroversion don’t seem, at root, to be totally consistent with a call for equal rights or recognition for a marginalized group. In fact, I find many of them kind of holier-than-thou in tone. Maybe I’m the defensive one, now (I have never been described as an introvert). However, read/listen to/watch a few of these, and I think you’ll find that the tone is often one of superiority instead of striving for equality—one doesn’t exactly get the impression that introverts are a persecuted class of people who are just as good as anyone else; rather, the injustice is far worse because introverts are better than other people, and those other people don’t recognize that fact. There’s a good deal of variability, of course; some defense-of-introverts pieces are much less like this than others. Many point out important ways in which we seem to have structured our world to prioritize certain interpersonal strategies over others, with bad consequences. My views here might be colored by the first introvexpert I heard speak at a conference, who punctuated one of her arguments with a frustrated comment like, “If extroverts would stay home and read a book once in a while instead of going to every party they’re invited to, maybe they might actually learn something and be more successful!”

I think it’s important to note that there is a micro-industry in celebrating introversion in the US right now, and (though this strategy is not infallible) one can “follow the money” to a certain extent. Introvexpert authors and speakers are rationally motivated to fuel righteous anger and a sense of specialness in their intended audience (which is, apparently, everyone, despite the fact that only a small percentage of the population is seriously introverted).

I also note that “introverts” (the quotes are back) seem to be a somewhat rare breed among marginalized groups in actually preferring the grouping/labeling/reductive method of referring to themselves. There are at least three levels of reductiveness in referring to groups of people:

  1. The person is the label: Hispanics, African Americans, autistics, manic-depressives, schizophrenics.
  2. The person is defined by the label: Hispanic people, African American people, autistic individuals, bipolar patients, schizophrenic individuals.
  3. The person is merely associated with the label: People who are Hispanic, members of the African American community, people with autism, individuals suffering from bipolar disorder, people with schizophrenia.

In general, non-asshole behavior, you should allow people the freedom to choose their labels (if any), so you should refer to people using option #3. They can choose to be more labely about themselves, if they wish, though in many cases I find they choose not to. In matters of civil/human rights, I think it’s fairly common for people to choose #1 for their own group (e.g., Hispanic people seem fairly likely to refer to themselves as “Latinos/Latinas” and [cis] women are pretty OK with calling themselves women most of the time), but people with characteristics seen as negative by the society at large don’t usually want the reductive labeling: you don’t see much use of “bipolars” or “autistics” or “pedophiles” among people with these characteristics.

Then there are introverts, who apparently prefer the reductive label. I have rarely (if ever) seen a pro-introvert document or talk that used anything but the term introverts as the standard reference for the group. I suppose introverts don’t want to be called “people with high levels of introversion;” they want to be the label. I think this observation (if true) adds to the evidence suggesting this isn’t about a mere struggle for equality. It also might suggest that the introvexperts realize that there is some question about whether “introverts” really exist as a discrete group, necessitating an aggressive use of the grouping language.

Where’s the null hypothesis?

People have experiences. Those experiences are real. They cause suffering. They are compelling. People make causal explanations for their experiences; that is, they find explanations for why the experiences happened to them. For good or ill, behavioral scientists do not automatically accept those causal explanations. This is not (just) because we are a bunch of jerks. It’s because we are scientists, and science demands a more rigorous approach to finding why. The Introvert Affirmation Industry does not seem invested in much science. Yes, you will find many scientific facts in every Introvert Affirmation book, but you won’t find a comprehensive listing of all relevant facts, nor will you find an extremely important element of science: alternative explanations (often known as null hypotheses).

If the “introverts” of the world are convinced they are experiencing systematic oppression (trying to use a feminist definition of that term), this could be due to various causes. There might be systematic bias and discriminatory behavior, of course, but that’s only one hypothesis, and it needs to be tested before rational people should accept it. There are other possibilities, and even a non-expert like myself can think of a few that should probably be ruled out before we go in for the introvexperts’ preferred explanation:

  • First, nearly everyone feels they are socially disconnected and disadvantaged; it’s one of the most common human experiences to feel that you aren’t really a full member of your community, that you aren’t as respected or appreciated as you’d like, that your intimate relationships aren’t as close or authentic as you wish they were, etc. Thus, this experience itself can’t be taken as evidence either of introversion or of oppression.
  • High-introvert individuals might, due to things related to their strong introversion trait, react more negatively to social situations that would not affect other people as badly: social rejection, criticism, etc. And this might create a sense of being oppressed.
  • People with high levels of introversion might experience self-fulfilling prophecy effects, in which their discomfort in certain social situations leads to other people behaving in ways the “introverts” perceive as extra-threatening or marginalizing, wash, rinse, repeat.
  • People who believe they are introverts might have read several Introvert Affirmation books or seen YouTube videos and come to reinterpret many normal situations (including normal horrible situations) in the framework of anti-introvert prejudice. I’m just saying.

More possibilities will surely have been considered by smarter people.

So before we start answering the question of where anti-introvert prejudice comes from, let’s get some data: is it even a thing? Lots of armchair philosophers think it is, and lots of people who cherry-pick cultural tidbits seem to conclude that it is, and most of these people seem to make their living by convincing large numbers of other people that it is.

I suspect the reality is more mixed. American culture, at least (I’m American, and most of the pro-introvert content I’ve seen is also American), has always had a mix of celebrating and demonizing both extroversion-typical and introversion-typical behaviors (I didn’t mention it above, but “deranged loner” is the media flip-side of “strong, silent type”, so yeah, our world has some nasty things to say about introverts, sometimes). I suspect that any research out there (I’m assuming there is some… how could there not be?) finds something other than a simple anti-introvert prejudice construct if it asks reasonably balanced sets of questions.

I don’t rule out the possibility that introverts are oppressed; I just find little or no evidence to support this idea right now, and many more plausible alternative explanations.